Conference on Life Detection in Extraterrestrial Samples

NASA Mars Program Office
NASA Planetary Protection Office
Universities Space Research Association
(USRA)/Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI)

Dave Beaty
NASA Mars Program Office

Cassie Conley
NASA Planetary Protection

Gerhard Kminek
ESA Planetary Protection

Mary Voytek
NASA Astrobiology

Jorge Vago
ESA Mars Program

Michael Meyer
NASA Mars Exploration Program

Dave Des Marais
Mars Exploration Program
Analysis Group (MEPAG) Chair
Carl Allen
NASA Johnson Space Center
Doug Bartlett
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Penny Boston
New Mexico Tech
Karen Buxbaum
NASA Mars Program Office
Charles Cockell
University of Edinburgh
John Parnell
University of Aberdeen
Mike Spilde
University of New Mexico
Andrew Steele
Carnegie Institution for Science
Frances Westall
Centre de Biophysique Moléculaire

Second Announcement — October 2011

Meeting Location and Date

The Conference on Life Detection in Extraterrestrial Samples will be held February 13–15, 2012, at the Scripps Institutition of Oceanography, San Diego, California.

Purpose and Scope

The return of samples from Mars was the highest-priority flagship in the U.S. Planetary Decadal Survey. It is also a key element in the European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars Robotic Exploration Preparatory Program to prepare Europe's contribution to the international exploration of Mars. Part of planning for a Mars sample return mission includes planning for what will happen to the samples after they have returned to Earth. One of the major scientific questions that will be asked in the analysis of returned martian samples is whether they contain indications of past or present martian life. In addition, international guidelines and agency policies dictate that Mars samples must be subjected to a program of life detection and biohazard analysis before they can be released from strict containment, to protect the environment of the Earth. A better understanding of current and possible investigation strategies and capabilities, including controls and measurements related to life detection in returned martian samples, is important to address both these concerns.

An understanding of planned or possible life detection strategies and measurements has major implications for several decisions related to requirements for the 2018 sampling rover, including strategies and requirements for avoiding contamination of the samples, and sample size needed to carry out the returned sample measurements.

Life detection strategies and capabilities are relevant to a range of scientific activities beyond Mars sample return, including origin of life investigations of both terrestrial and planetary materials. The search for fossils and remnants of early life on Earth benefits greatly from a variety of analytical techniques, and can inform efforts to detect life in planetary materials. Strategies and technologies for life detection can effectively be applied to meteorite studies, addressing questions regarding the organic constituents present in the early solar system as well as possibly shedding light on reports of possible life in meteorites that remain highly controversial.

Meeting themes

Potential session topics:

  • Detecting/quantifying life/biomarkers in geological samples
  • Detecting/quantifying Earth life at the extremes (temperature, water, nutrients, radiation) — limits of detection (concentration, variety)
  • Methods and protocols used for research on ancient DNA and forensic science
  • Detecting/quantifying life with unknown properties
  • Controlling contamination of hardware and samples (cleaning, documentation, materials, blanks/witness plates)
  • Life detection needs and capabilities specific to space missions

Meeting Format

Monday, February 13

Oral presentations and evening poster session and reception

Tuesday, February 14

Oral presentations

Wednesday, February 15 (half-day)

Oral presentations, panel discussion, wrap-up

Call for Abstracts

Abstracts are solicited that address the full range of practical and theoretical considerations for detecting life in samples of geological or planetary materials, including sample preparation methods, nondestructive and destructive testing strategies, technological capabilities and improvements, identification of terrestrial contamination, instrument detection sensitivity and specificity, as well as appropriate controls, statistical confidence limits on detection, and considerations relevant to hypothesis testing (e.g., application of the null hypothesis). Studies on detection of both extant and extinct life are relevant, as are studies of samples of terrestrial materials relevant to understanding the distribution of life in challenging modern-day environments, early life on Earth, or planetary materials such as meteorites or returned Mars samples.

Abstract Deadline — Thursday, November 10, 2011, 5:00 p.m. U.S. Central Standard Time (GMT -6)

  • No late abstracts will be accepted, regardless of the reason.
  • Abstracts sent by e-mail will NOT be considered.
  • Abstracts are limited to two pages.
  • All abstracts must be submitted in PDF format.
  • All abstracts must be submitted in U.S. letter size format (8.5" x 11"); A4 submissions will be rejected by the system.
  • Abstract file sizes must be no larger than 1.5 MB; larger files will be automatically rejected by the system.

Authors are encouraged to start the submission process early so the USRA staff will have time to provide assistance in the event of technical problems. For technical assistance, contact Linda Tanner (281-486-2142) or Renée Dotson (281-486-2188), or send an e-mail message to [email protected].

Unable to Produce PDF Files?  Authors who are unable to produce a PDF file may send their source files (must be in Word or PostScript format) to USRA no later than November 7, 2011. A PDF file will be created and returned to the author, but it is the author's responsibility to submit that PDF file by the time of the abstract deadline. Source files should be sent to [email protected].

Preparation and Submission of Abstracts

Step 1: Download the appropriate template

Step 2: Write the abstract (no more than two pages) using the format shown in the template

Step 3: Create a PDF file (no larger than 1.5 MB)

Step 4: Fill out the electronic abstract submission form and upload the abstract file


Participants are responsible for making their own travel arrangements and hotel reservations. Information about area hotels is available on the Scripps website.



Through January 15, 2012

January 16–February 6, 2012










*Onsite registration will be by credit card only.

Credit card registrations:  Participants registering by credit card MUST use the secure electronic registration form.

Other methods of payment:  Those registering using any other method of payment (check, money order, traveler's check, or wire transfer) must contact the LPI Meeting Registrar for detailed instructions.

Note:  We now have a third-party payment page available. Participants required to register using a third party (e.g., SATERN for NASA civil servants) may still register in advance using the electronic registration form. The confirmation e-mail you receive after registering will include payment instructions to submit to the third party. Please be aware, however, that your registration will not be considered complete until the funds have been received.

Cancellations:  Requests for cancellation with a fee refund (less a $25.00 processing fee) will only be accepted through February 1, 2012. Those who fail to attend and do not notify the LPI prior to the February 1, 2012, deadline will forfeit their full fee.

Student Travel Assistance

The NASA Mars Program Office has announced that travel funding will be made available for as many as four students who are U.S. citizens or legal residents, with Mars-related interests, to attend this workshop. An application must be submitted by November 23, 2011, to be considered for this funding. NASA Headquarters will make the selections and students will be notified no later than December 20, 2011.

Reimbursable costs include transportation (airfare, mileage to/from airport, parking, rental car) and lodging/per diem allowance. In most cases, actual expenses will exceed the funding provided.

Note:  Students who are depending on travel assistance should not pay the registration fee or make travel arrangements until they have been notified that they have received an award. If you are requesting funds to travel to the meeting from outside the U.S., you should also wait to register until you have successfully completed NASA's foreign travel approval process. Failure to comply with this requirement may prohibit reimbursement.

Travel costs up to $1050.00 including the student registration fees will be reimbursed according to JPL/government-specified allowances. For reference, hotel/per diem rates can be found at (see per diem).


  • Students must be U.S. citizens or legal residents.
  • Students must be enrolled at a university at the time of the conference or the semester immediately following the conference (if during break).

Students wishing to apply for this assistance must submit the student travel funding application form by November 23, 2011.

Interested students with questions are encouraged to contact Charles Budney (Mars Program Office, [email protected] or 818-354-3981).


For further information regarding the scientific content of the meeting:

Dr. David Beaty
Mars Program Office
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Phone:  818-354-7968
E-mail:  [email protected]

Dr. Gerhard Kminek
European Space Agency
Phone:  + 31 71 565 6096
E-mail:  [email protected]

Dr. Cassie Conley
NASA's Planetary Protection Officer
NASA Headquarters
Phone:  202-358-3912
E-mail:  [email protected]

For further information regarding meeting logistics:

Dr. Charles Budney
Mars Program Office
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Phone:  818-354-3981
E-mail:  [email protected]

For information regarding abstract submission or registration:

Linda Tanner
Universities Space Research Association/
Lunar and Planetary Institute
Phone:  281-486-2142
Fax:  281-486-2125
E-mail:  [email protected]


Abstract deadline November 10, 2011
Final announcement with program and abstracts posted on this website December 13, 2011
Conference on Life Detection in Extraterrestrial Samples at the Scripps Institutition of Oceanography, San Diego, California February 13–15, 2012